Mellette County, South Dakota
County & Town Histories
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History of Mellette County
(Transcribed, with permission from the Mellette County Historical Society, from "Mellette County 1911-1961" published by the Mellette County Centennial Committee)
Mellette County was created in 1909 and organized in 1911. The county was named for Arthur C. Mellette, who was the last governor of Dakota Territory and the first governor of the State.
Mellette County, along with Bennett, Gregory, Todd, Tripp and Washabaugh counties, comprising the Rosebud country in early territorial days, belonged to the Sioux tribe of Indians, given them under the terms of a peace treaty in 1868.
Early in 1911 the governor of South Dakota issued a proclamation providing for the first election in Mellette County to be held May 25, 1911.
The first board meeting on record of commissioners of Mellette was on May 31, 1911. The following officers were present: Commissioners: D. L. McLane, chairman; J. A. Siegmund, Reuben Quick Bear. County Officers: Frank J. Cummings, County Auditor; W. E. Hollenback, Register of Deeds; Jesse Brown, Clerk of Courts; Arthur Bordeaux, Coroner; Stephen Estes, Sheriff; H. A. McManus, Judge; Henry Eagle Horse, Constable; Sadie E. Shives, County Superintendent of Schools; Charles S. Hight, Justice of Peace. Sadie E. Shives was appointed County Superintendent on June 16, 1911 after T. J. Utterbeck failed to qualify for the office.
At the 1911 election White River won over Wood for the county seat location.
In October, 1911, 466,562 acres in Mellette County were thrown open to settlement. The prices of this land varied from 25 cents to $6 per acre. During the fall of 1911 thousands of people came to Oalias (Gregory County) and other registering points to have their names listed for a chance on Mellette County farms. The numbers were drawn at Gregory, where the land office was located. After the drawings the fortunate ones had to pick out their homesteads or claims.
In the spring of 1912 the homesteaders began erecting homes. Very often their families were left back east while the building was going on, but in many cases a tent was pitched and the homesteader camped until his new home was completed.
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By Grover Burnette, Sr.
(Text Transcribed, with permission from the Mellette County Historical Society, from "Mellette County 1911-1961" published by the Mellette County Centennial Committee
Photo from "Mellette County Memories, Golden Anniversary Edition 1911-1961", published by Winifred Reutter, 1961 )
Each district on the reservation, now called communities, had a roundup
outfit composed of a mess wagon and a bed wagon. In the rear of the mess
wagon was a box mounted to keep the dishes and eating tools, as we called
them. The food, flour, sugar, beans and sow belly, of course, was carried in
this wagon. A beef was butchered now and then - whenever a slick was found.
Any horse or critter found unbranded after it was weaned belonged to the one
who found it.
When the cook had breakfast ready, he pounded on a dishpan and hollered,
"Grub pile, come and get it or I'll throw it out!" Then there was a mad rush for
The bed wagon was an ordinary wagon with one or two sideboards on to hold
all of the bed rolls, tents, corral ropes, brands, chaps and whatnot.
I will mention a few of the old boys who went with the roundup and are still
living: Harris Lodge Skin, Isaac Knife, Sam Yellow Robe, Frank Lance, Jim Yellow Eagle, Charlie Larson, Charles Whipple, Bill Bordeaux, Vern Giroux, Art Zickrick, Jim Bad Hand, Joe One Feather, Martin Iron Shooter, and myself, Grover Burnette, Sr. Not many of the old cowboys are left in the Rosebud Country - Indians or whites. I could mention a hundred or more who have passed on to the Happy Hunting Ground. (I may have omitted a few names, but don't be offended).
The roundup day began in the saddle at four in the morning and to bed at sundown or later every day, rain or shine. As soon as the day broke enough to see to rope the cowboy roped the horse he wanted to ride to gather cattle for the day's roundup. Each cowboy roped his horse over the heads of other horses, which was not easy.
Many times a wild horse was roped by mistake and then there was the job of taking the rope off the bronc. It took four or five men to pull the bronc out of the corral and choke him down until he fell. One man jumped on his head and before he came to, the rope was released and taken off his neck.
The cattle were gathered in the forenoons and then the calves branded many different brands. The roper had to be on the ball so as not to make a mistake and cause the calf to be branded with someone else's brand. (It happened many times). Many cows had to be roped, thrown and the unshed hair removed so her brand would be visible enough to brand her calf accordingly. Nowadays, the calves are all branded alike and the roper does not have so great a responsibility. A mistake meant branding the little calf twice with a two to four letter or figure brand.
During the night each man took his turn on a two hour shift of night herd. There were four shifts of two men each for a thousand or more cattle generally.
Each outfit had at least 15 or more men and each, of course, had his string of horses to ride. Eleven head was a good string; one night horse, four good cutting horses, and six long winded circle horses for gathering the cattle in the forenoon. The horses were cared for by a horse wrangler during the day and a night hawk at night. The night hawk stayed with them until about 4: 00 a.m. then corraled them. The corral was made of inch roped about three feet high in a semi-diamond shape. One side was fastened to the bed wagon wheel, one rope on front wheel hub and one on hind wheel hub. Two big wooden stakes at each end and one in the middle pulled out on each side forming the corral. A prop about three feet long with a fork at the end held up the corral rope at each end and in the middle.
After morning chow the most ambitious cowboys saddled their horses and then roped and harnessed the four horses for the mess wagon and the two for the bed wagon.
The outfit moved a few miles each day. The cook drove the mess wagon. The night hawk drove the bed wagon and the horse wrangler followed with the saddle horses. Each day one of the riders was selected to pilot the wagons. This was considered a privilege, and the pilot, a top hand, was instructed by the boss where to stop for dinner or make camp.
If any cowhand shirked on the job, which was easy to do, he would be ordered to stand night guard a two hour shift. This extra night guard was a tough penalty. If one did not observe the rules, got drunk or caused trouble he was fired from the wagon. He would then take his horses, bunk roll, pack his pack horse and move to another wagon or home. This was an extreme penalty and I can remember of only three or four such deals during my time as a cowhand.
I remember one time our cook got fired and one of the hands had to take over until another could be found. Cooks were few and far between. Night hawks were also hard to find. Often the horse wrangler was a stupid cowhand, a broken down one, a young punk, a half wit or someone of that sort.
Dick Mouse, another old timer, was a real good night hawk and worked on many a roundup. He also did a good job of wrangling horses. He lives alone on the river near White River. (Dick, our old friend and night hawk, died while I was bragging that he was the best night wrangler that ever straddled a horse).
Every Indian family, at least 90 percent of them, had a bunch of cattle on the Rosebud Reservation. After the white homesteaders came in, the Indians were forced to sell their stock for lack of range-free range was just a memory. So the good old roundup days were gone for good. The Indians rounded up their cattle and shipped them to Sioux City. A few, such as Alex Bordeaux, John Burnette, Steve and Ed Estes, Louie Giraux and George Schmidt, did not sell but stayed in the cattle business after 1912.
I’ll close my story by telling of an incident that happened on one of the roundups in 1909 or 1910. The wagon was camped on the Little White River north of the town of White River. The boys made a big circle that morning on both sides of the river, and I happened to be one of the first five or six riders that arrived back with cattle. I was a young punk about 16, most of the boys were older than I.
We were hungry as always so rode up and parked our horses too close to the cook’s tent while we went in and grabbed a biscuit or something to eat. Joe Red Eye was the cook, a cocky guy and cranky. While we were inside the tent he took his horse whip out of the mess wagon and drove our horses away. Four of the men, two I remember were Charles Bear Heels and Buff Lone Wolf, grabbed the cook and carried him to the river bank, swung him two or three times and let him land in a deep spot in the river. I saw the sand in the bottom of the river when he hit. He was under water a second or two and came out a mad cook but the odds were too much for him, so he took it. His durham, paper, matches, and his watch, which he thought the world of, all got a good soaking. Everybody had a good laugh except Joe, who said a few words which I'll leave to your imagination. I have forgotten one real bronc peeler, Joe Yellow Robe, who lives near Mission, South Dakota. He could ride any animal on four feet. On the roundup he would put on an exhibition if someone in the outfit had a bucking horse that was supposed to be hard to sit on. Joe would ride him some evening just for fun and I mean when Joe finished the horse was well ridden. The good old days are gone forever. Nowadays, it is rush, come and get it or you are shut out.
Left to right: Curley Sargent, Billie Brown (foreman), name unknown, tow Seth Brothers, Paul Lamoreaux, Buster Brown, Foster Berry, and Clark Camel
U+ (U Cross) Riders, 1909. Last Roundup.
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Brief History of Mellette County
(Transcribed, with permission, from "Mellette County 1911-1986" published by the Mellette County Historical Society)
Mellette County, South Dakota, a vast wilderness of prairie and lonely pine-clad
canyons, was created in 1909, surveyed in 1910 and became an organized county
in 1911. Prior to that time it had been a part of Meyers County, which was a part
of the Rosebud Reservation. The Rosebud Reservation was bounded on the south
by the Nebraska line, on the east by the Missouri River, on the north by the Big
White River, and on the west by the Bennett County line. This area had been given
to the Teton Sioux after the Fort Laramie Treaty of April 29, 1868.
Before that treaty the Rosebud Reservation and four other reservations in South
Dakota, and one whose agency is in North Dakota, were a part of the Great Sioux
Reservation, which included parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota
and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, as shown in the diagram.
Indians were angered with the westward movement of the whites; at the way they
were being pushed west by ever-increasing settlement; at the well-traveled roads
through their best hunting grounds as wagon trains made their way to the newly-
discovered gold fields; at the thinning-out of the buffalo herds and at the broken
treaties. They retaliated by raiding settlements and attacking travelers.
After the Civil War, the Union Pacific Railroad was being built to meet the California end. The Indians did not want a railroad through their country and they did everything in their power to prevent the building of this railroad. Bloodshed and massacres were the result of the invasions. It finally became necessary for the U.S. Government to make some arrangement with the plains Indians.
Consequently, a Peace Commission was appointed that included four civilians, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and three Army generals. They were "to deal with the hostile tribes with three objects in view: to remove the existing causes of complaint, to secure the safety of the various continental railways and the overland routes, and to work out some means for promoting Indian civilization without impeding the advance of the United States. To this last end they were to hunt for permanent homes for the tribes which were to be off the lines of the railways ..."
After 15 months of deliberation the commission recommended that the Indians be placed on two reservations, south and north of the railroad respectively. The one to the south was to be Indian Territory, and the reservation to the north was to be the Great Sioux Reservation.
The treaty provided for the following compensations to the Sioux: a) Extension for 20 years of the educational advantages of the treaty of 1868 whereby a school and teacher was promised for every 30 children of school age who would attend school. b) Thirty new buildings were to be erected for school. c) Not exceeding 26,000 head of cattle. d) Each family would take an allotment, two milk cows, a pair of oxen with yoke and chain (later changed to a team of horses), one wagon, one harrow, hoe, ax, pitchfork, $20 cash, and seed for two years sufficient for five acres. e) $1,000,000 of which not more than 10 percent could be expended or paid to the Sioux in anyone year. Interest was to be paid at five percent. f) Any money that might remain over from the proceeds of the sales of the ceded land after all expenses were taken out, including the $1,000,000.
The effort to shift the Indian from a hunting life to that of farming was the chief feature of the Indian policy framed by the government. In 1887 the Allotment Act was passed. Under this law the reservation was to be broken up and the land divided into individual allotments. Each adult Indian was to receive 320 acres, and each child received 160 acres. The Indian could live on it and farm it but he could not sell or mortgage it, and when he died it was bequeathed to his heirs.
The first step was the surveying of the reservation. The Rosebud Reservation was a large one and that, in part, accounted for the length of time it took to survey it. The survey crew put in steel stakes at every half mile corner, with the allotment township and range number on each. This crew consisted of Sam Chilton and Blaine Scriven as surveyors, Mr. and Mrs. Volley McKensie, helper and cook, and Charlie Larsen as teamster.
After the surveys were made, the actual work of allotting began. Many, many difficulties had to be overcome. After the land was allotted to the Indians, there was, in most cases, some surplus land. This was usually ceded to the government. At first the government bought the surplus land from the Indians and then threw it open to settlers under the Homestead Act.
In October 1911, 466,562 acres in Mellette County were thrown open to settlement. There were 53,728 people registered for 10,000 homestead sites, and they drew lots to determine who would be allowed to homestead the allotted land. The drawing started at Gregory on Wednesday, October 24, 1911, under the supervision of Judge James Witten. All the names of those who registered were emptied onto a large platform, and two little girls, Virginia Foster of Dallas and Dorothy Slaughter of Gregory, drew out the names. The winners were notified of the time and place to appear to make their selection and file.
The first name drawn was that of Mary J. Kendall, 43, of Rapid City. Because she had an invalid husband and was the family breadwinner, she was eligible to take a homestead. Wives ordinarily were not eligible. Mrs. Kendall chose her land near Wood, South Dakota. Later she found that it was not possible for her to live there so she sold her relinquishment for enough money to build a home in Rapid City. Others from the area who were among the first hundred were Frank Hakl No. 21, Joe Scull No. 22, Benie Heney No. 37, Ray Rankin No. 43, Al Smith No. 49, and Bill Collins No. 81. The price of the land ranged from 50 cents an acre to $6 an acre. Grazing land ranged from $1.25 to $1.50 per acre.
Early in 1912 the homesteaders began building their homes. It was required that they live on the land for one year, make improvements of a specified dollar value, and do some farming before they could become the owner of the land.
Many of the earliest settlers were cattlemen who ran large herds of cattle on their Indian allotment as well as on the open range. Among these prominent livestock growers were John Burnett, Connie Utterbeck, Fred Schmidt and James D. McLean. Occasionally the cattle would damage some homesteader's garden and the homesteaders were forced to pay the damages.
Early in 1911 a proclamation was issued by the governor of South Dakota providing for the first election to be held in Mellette County. The date set was May 25, 1911. A slate of officers was selected and White River was chosen as the temporary county seat. The first commissioners meeting was held May 31, 1911. Records show that D.L. McLane, chairman, Joe A. Siegmund of Wood, and Reuben Quick Bear of Norris were present. One of their first pieces of legislation was the consideration of a bridge across the Big White River.
Homesteaders began moving in, meandering along the Indian trails to their allotted home. Many, of them pitched a tent or dug in like coyotes until a better home could be built. Sod shanties, tar-papered shacks or stone houses provided shelter. Most of them were 12 by 12 foot structures. Oswald Jarl tells how he could sit on his bed and still be able to flip the pancakes.
Water was hauled from a nearby stream until a well could be dug. If you were far away from timber, twisted hay or cow chips were used for fuel. Holes were dug into a bank to serve for refrigeration until the well could be used. Little plots of ground were plowed for a garden or a patch of corn or beans. Every homesteader tried to have a cow as well as a team of horses. The tall, waving native wheat grass supplied feed for many cattle, and the cattle industry became prominent within the county. The raising of wheat and alfalfa were among the best farm enterprises. However, bands of sheep were here and there.
Four towns have grown with the county; namely, Cedar Butte, Norris, Wood and White River. Throughout the years there were 18 post offices. In the homesteading days when transportation was by team and wagon, the neighbor going to town usually brought back the mail and groceries for his immediate neighbors. This led to the beginning of a little store and rural post office. With the building of better roads and the coming of the automobile, people were able to go to town for their supplies, and mail routes were established. Thus all but four of these post offices have faded into the mists of time.
Between 1911 and 1947 six banks have been chartered in Mellette County. One of these, the Blackpipe State Bank of Norris, which moved to Martin in 1934, and the White River Branch of the Farmer's State Bank of Winner are still in operation.
Nearly every denomination has a church or churches in Mellette County. Many have been moved to accommodate their congregations. There are four active Extension Clubs in the county, five 4-H clubs, two Federated Woman's'clubs, two American Legion units, two Legion Auxiliary units, two Eastern Star Chapters, two Masonic Lodges, one Odd Fellows Lodge, one Rebekah Lodge, a Lions Club, a Jaycettes Club, a sportsman's club and several ladies' church organizations.
The Indian trails have been replaced by graded and graveled roads. Four highways cross the county: Numbers 63, 83 and 52, which traverse the county south and north, and Highway 44 east and west. On October 29, 1929, the first railroad pulled into Wood. This short line of 34 miles was short-lived because trucks took over the hauling business.
In 1912 the total assessed valuation of Mellette County was $566,366. In 1985 the assessed valuation of Mellette County is $53,288,860.
Wheat was golden in the 20's. But the 30's brought drought and grasshoppers to the state. Areas that had been quite well populated became vacant, and much of the land went back to the county for taxes. With the aid of several agricultural programs in the late 30's, property values were on the rise again. Living conditions were improved, rural electrification was offered and accepted, telephones were installed in every community, large powerful farm machines replaced the horse, and three-wheelers, jeeps and airplanes replaced the saddle horse.
All in all, many things have gone together to improve the progress of Mellette County and make it a good place to live among the friendliest people of the state, people who work for the betterment of the community.
Great Sioux Reservation before the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868